Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oct. 12: Kathleen Alcott at Copperfield's Debut Dinners

Posted by on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 5:08 PM

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Kathleen Alcott's debut novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets opens with two babies, crawling around each other on the floor, drawn together like magnets, as their parents look on. At first, the relationship between the two—Jackson and Ida—is unknown. Are they siblings? Cousins? Related by blood at all? As the story unwinds, we find that though unrelated, they share a bond that transcends blood, lasting through the end of the novel, in the midst of death, tragedy, mental illness, cross-country moves and ill-advised relationship maneuvers. "The majority of our lives we were an exhausting display that others looked on, confused and ashamed to be watching," Ida says, after a long passage describing Jackson's traits, all the things she's grown to know so well as she grows up with him. What follows is a fractured love story, a story that falls into lyricism more often that not, and one that flirts constantly with a sense of the tragic.

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Alcott is a young writer, but you wouldn't know it from this gripping, beautifully written debut novel. The Petaluma native, who now lives in New York, writes with the confidence of someone who's been fine-tuning her work for a long while. Recently, Alcott told Brad Listi, host of the Other People podcast, that she'd decided to dedicate herself to writing completely after dropping out of college. Within a few years, she'd published on The Rumpus, and in notable literary journals American Short Fiction and Slice Magazine. Soon, she had an agent and set to work finishing a novel that had been relegated to the "unfinished" pile. The result is a dark story, one that the reader may want to look away from at times, about those we love and those we take advantage of and those we just can't live without.

This Copperfield's Debut Dinner with Kathleen Alcott takes place on Friday, October 12 at Risibisi. 154 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma. 6pm. $65 ticket includes dinner and a book. 707.823.8991 ex215

Menu
Home made focaccia bread served with dinner

Course One
Choice of Soup of the Day, Caesar Salad or Mixed Organic Greens Salad in
house vinaigrette.

Course Two
Choice of Chicken Piccata, Vegetarian Risotto or Rigatoni Bolognese (Meat
Sauce)

Course Three
Slice of home made Tiramisu or Italian Gelato
One complimentary glass of wine or beverage is included.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Play With Your Food at Square Belly Food Theater

Posted by on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Chris Hanson explains science in the kitchen
  • Chris Hanson explains science in the kitchen

It’s cool to play with your food. That’s the mantra behind Square Belly Food Theater, a series of monthly workshops being held at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa. The most recent one on Oct. 3 featured chef Chris Hanson and food writer Heather Irwin showcasing molecular gastronomy techniques. Despite the fancy science words, it’s actually pretty easy to mess with the traditional way foods are served. And it can be damn impressive, too.

The demonstrations began with lemon powder. This would be easy enough to purchase at a local spice shop (there are two in Santa Rosa), but it’s much more potent and impressive when made at home. This is good to stir into recipes where liquid would throw off the scientific reactions of the dish (baking, for example) or as an interesting kick as a garnish, like on the rim of a lemondrop martini.

Basically, it involves peeling a lemon, scraping the white interior off and drying the peel in a food dehydrator. Hanson says these are for about $20 at local stores and probably online as well. I know they are often available at larger thrift stores for less. Throw the dried peel into a spice grinder (they used a bullet-type coffee grinder) and voila, lemon powder. This can be done with any kind of dried fruit, even pre-dried fruit, as long as it’s brittle.

Next was 63-degree eggs, cooked sous vide. Pronounced “soo-vee,” this cooking technique heats water to a certain temperature using an electric hot plate and cooks vacuum-sealed food in the hot water. Since it never goes over the desired temperature, overcooking is not a problem, and food can be made to a very precise doneness. Meat is often prepared this way, but at 63 degrees Celsius an egg becomes cooked evenly. Since it’s already in a vacuum shell, all one has to do is control the temperature and put in the eggs. The result is an “elegant poached egg,” where the albumin (white part) is the same consistency as the yolk.

The most impressive feat of the night was vegan caviar. I get a kick out of things that mimic other things but in fact are completely unrelated to the thing they’re mimicking (trying saying that 10 times fast!). This balsamic vinegar looked just like black caviar, but could be made completely vegan, using no animal products at all. Hanson also demonstrated the technique with Sriracha hot sauce, making spicy red caviar.

It’s about timing with this one. There’s a time in the Jello making process when it’s not Jello yet, it’s just viscous, colored liquid. That time window is exploited here. Hanson made clear gelatin (agar agar can be used for vegan substitute), poured balsamic vinegar into it and, while still warm, poured the liquid into a squeeze bottle with a small tip. This will be dripped into cooking oil that has been placed in the freezer for a bit. Though he had a tall graduated cylinder, it’s fine to just throw a whole tall bottle of vegetable oil in until it’s not quite frozen, but still very cold. Drip the balsamic gelatin liquid into the semi-frozen oil and the gelatin cools instantly, forming little spheres that can be strained out when finished. The oil can be strained and re-used without taking on any flavor from the “caviar.”

The series continues with John Lyle and the Secret Life of Pie Crust at 6:30pm Nov. 7 at the Arlene Francis Center. Cost is $20 or “whatever you can pay.” As someone who has tried and failed miserably at making pie crust, I will probably be attending this workshop. I also want to know how to use lard in a crust, because why not get animal fat into everything you can?

Techniques of top-notch chefs don’t have to be shrouded in mystery. It’s actually possible to do this stuff at home. And after doing so, it creates more appreciation for those great chefs and opens doors to new, exciting possibilities for home hobbyist cooks.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

EXTENDED PLAY: An interview with Genevieve DeGuzman about the benefits of Coworking

Posted by on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 5:29 PM

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Our feature story this week is about the rise of coworking in the North Bay. The following is a longer excerpt from our interview with Genevieve DeGuzman, co-author of the Working in the 'Unoffice:' A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits, out now via Night Owls Press.

Is coworking a growing phenomena? Why? Are there more freelancers, people who work from home, entrepreneurs now?

Coworking is definitely growing and a large part of that can be attributed to the fact that more people are working for themselves or are telecommuting from their jobs. Technology is a large driver of that, making it easier than ever to do work remotely. Most of us have laptops, smartphones, and tablets and access files off the cloud. These digital tools make it possible to get work done from any location. It can even make work more efficient. Workers aren't distracted by the downsides of in-person office life: office politics, endless meetings, long commutes, and so on. They can plug in, get the work done, get on Skype to touch base with team members, and get on with life. The rise of more independent professionals — entrepreneurs, such as freelancers and startups — as well as telecommuters who opt to work offsite comes with a cost though — isolation and inconvenience… and that's where coworking comes in.

Note: for some hard stats on growth patterns, check Deskmag.com.

What does it take for a cowork space to survive?

A space that builds out a facility and hopes expectantly that people will come is more likely to be the space that closes down in a few months. One of the biggest reasons coworking spaces close is that they can't meet the membership threshold to cover rent and other capital costs to keep the lights on. So, the biggest priority to be long-lived as a space is solid membership numbers.

In coworking language that translates to figuring out what drives your community. Most members stick around because they like the coworking culture. In essence, the space has to be more than just people wanting to save money by not having to buy Starbucks lattes everyday and having a place to network to make business contacts. Owners of spaces have to figure out what makes their members tick beyond their professional goals. This comes down to programs and events. Are people just showing up and then leaving at the end of the day? Do they say hello and then put on their headphones? Do they stick around after work, or come back on weekends? What you don't want is that the space regresses into just another office space where people plug in and work, working on their own projects with blinders on. Spaces have to focus on keeping their community energized.

So, before building out that coworking space and signing that 2-year lease on a building, entrepreneurs who want to start a coworking space should start building their membership before hand. Find out what the actual demand is. Hold local "Jellies" to gauge interest in a shared workspace. What are people looking for? Market and engage local businesses, build up that buzz and demand first.

Then, once you're operating, keep close tabs on membership turnover. On one hand, high turnover can signal instability in a space; on the other hand, it could mean a space is successful, attracting and cultivating superstars that steadily expand and then find they have to graduate out. Startups often leverage a coworking space this way; then they get massive VC funding and find that they can afford their own space. In fact, many companies often see a coworking space as just an intermediate step.

As a space, you want to make sure you have enough long-term members to offset your casual or part-time coworkers. Many spaces focus first on getting 'anchor' companies to join (who are more or less committed to working out of the space for a few years) and then the more irregular members can flit in and out every few months without too much risk to the coworking space.

What are the benefits of coworking vs. working at home or working at a coffeehouse?

Coworking provides a more structured and secure environment than what you can find at your local coffee shop (where Wi-Fi networks may be riddled with security holes or when prime spots next to the wall outlets are scarce), and it's less isolating than working at home day in and day out, in your PJs. If you're looking for a community of fellow entrepreneurs to be around, coworking spaces are ideal places to work. It's the camaraderie that sets it apart from other remote work locations. You're no longer just getting that startup or freelance career off the ground in your lonely little bubble. Now, you have that tribe — people to be around without the office politics.

And then there's the magic of sharing: sharing ideas, exchanging services. There are countless stories of businesses getting leads for clients or partnerships from fellow members. You also get exposure to people with different backgrounds and life experiences. Who knows what random conversation at the brownbag lunch or Meetup will prod the walls and fences of your thinking, making you a better entrepreneur. You gain so much more from working because it's about seeing other businesses as potential connections rather than competition.

It's great for people seeking to get out of the hermetic enclosures of their homes, who need to be around people to work, and want to plant roots in a community of fellow entrepreneurs. Coworking is really about getting away from the old model of working and looking at work and life more collaboratively. Great ideas come out of the churn of working alongside others.

What type of people tend to take advantage of cowork spaces?

People from all types of fields and industries flock to coworking spaces, though tech is still the dominant industry with app developers and web startups making up most of the membership demographic (especially here in the SF Bay Area). But you're also seeing more nonprofits, social enterprise, telecommuters, and creative professionals looking to coworking spaces as their default workspace. Diversity is always a good thing for a space, I think.

Entrepreneurs who are just starting out may choose to cowork because of the benefits of having that community and exposure. It's a tough life being a first-time entrepreneur or just getting your business off the ground; coworking gets you talking to people, exchanging ideas — and that might be well-worth the investment for many startups. In fact, you could look at some coworking spaces as pre-incubators, where startups go to prototype and experiment with new ideas. It's also low-pressure networking. There's no exchanging awkward elevator speeches — just conversation across the table.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Extended Play: An interview with 2012 MacArthur Fellow Junot Diaz

Posted by on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 at 12:33 PM

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On Monday, Oct. 1 it was announced that Dominican-American author and Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Diaz had been given a 2012 MacArthur "genius" award, a $500,000 no-strings attached grant to "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits."

Diaz has received acclaim lately for his newest short story collection, This is How You Lose Her, released by Riverhead Books in August. His 2007 novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is considered to be one of the best books of the 21st century. It's always at the top of my list of recommended books for a brilliant take on a sci-fi nerd turned wannabe lothario doomed by familial and socio-political history.

Here's our interview with Junot Diaz, part of a Sep. 5 Arts Feature that came out right before Diaz's packed appearance at Copperfield's Books in Montgomery Village. By the way, at that appearance, Diaz was asked the question, "If you could be any other writer, who would you be?" In a fantastic subversion of expectations, Diaz said that he would be Octavia Butler, the African-American science fiction author of such classics as Parable of the Sower and Kindred. It was a beautiful moment in the history of literature.

How does the idea of apocalypse play into your current project and your work in general?

As far as the apocalypse, I grew up in the most apocalyptic area in the world. We can’t think of a place that has endured more apocalypses than the Dominican Republic and the island of Hispaniola, or the island of Haiti has endured everything expect for a nuclear catastrophe. I think these shadows, these historical echoes reached me and they both intrigued and troubled me. And I came up in New Jersey, within slight distance of New York City during the time of the possibility of total nuclear annihilation. I was one of those kids that grew up in a time where you would see, on the news, they’d suddenly flash a map of New York City and they would show a big black ring, of every area, every town, every person within that range would be utterly obliterated, and of course, we were deep in the heart of that ring.

The apocalyptic history of both the Dominican Republic and the United States has resonated with me and continues to shape a lot of the interests in my work.

I grew up in the 1980’s and remember being terrified by movies like “The Day After.”

I mean, that stuff just blows your mind. You’re like, “What the fuck!”

I don’t think it ever leaves you. That feeling of everything could end right now never really goes away.
These are things that, again, you learn in your childhood how to dream. We think that we just get dreaming built into us, that it’s something that comes natural. But, the shape and the content of our dreams is acquired in our childhood and I think it’s no accident that people like me and you have a strand to our dreams that’s apocalyptic. How could you not growing up that way? It’s not only Sarah Connor that dreams of the world exploding. We are all basically Sarah Connor’s children.

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She’s the one from The Terminator right?

Yep, that’s how nerdy I am, girl.

(Diaz shows the film in a post-apocalyptic literature class that he teaches at MIT. He also shows “The Day After,” the 1980’s nuclear catastrophe made-for-TV movie. )

In this book that I just wrote, the character’s actually a conversation about The Day After. And in fact, in the story “Miss Lora,” the narrator Yunior dismisses The Day After as nonsense, and talks about how he prefers the more hardcore British movie Threads.

It took you 10 or 11 years to write “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and it seems like it was a fairly grueling process, not writing that writing a novel is ever easy. In comparison, what was the process of writing the stories in “This is How You Lose Her?”

It me took 17 years to write these. You can safely say that this was not an easy tow. I’ve pretty much been living them for a very long time. They’re kind of braided together, in a way, with my last book.

In an interview with Paula Moya for The Boston Review, you said about black women writers, “Why these sisters struck me as he most dangerous of artists was because in the work of, say Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions.” Do you do this in your own work? I’m thinking specifically of the stories in “This is How You Lose Her.” Are Yunior, Rafa and the narrator of “Otravida, Otravez” profoundly constituted of their own oppressions?

Oh god, that should be up to the reader to say, you know? I’m always very wary of explaining what I write because, I think that’s a great question, but I think that you would be better at answering than I would be. I do think that in the end it’s the reader that has to answer that question and not the writer. I raised the question, so custom dictates that the reader would the one to respond now. I really do understand the value and the merit of the question and as a writer I don’t want to be completely coy. I mean, to direct our attention to the most obvious, look at the way that Yunior’s sexism and his hetero-normative, patriarchal, master-of-the- imaginary leads him to view women as not fully human. Gee whiz, this engages and involves him in every aspect of his life. And it is as much of an oppression that he produces as he produces that produces him.

And traps him in his own misery

Without any question.

But that can make the stories difficult to read in a way too. I was talking to a friend of mine about how I was reading your new collection and she told me that she couldn’t read your books because of the way that women are represented. She said that it’s just too painful for her. The references to “bitches” and “ho’s” made me wince at times.

That’s just strange because that would be like, none of these people have every spent any time in the public sphere of America or listened to hip hop. Or have never listened to a politician, or don’t live in this culture. I think what’s happening here is that we’re far more comfortable living our oppression as long as no one represents it to us in art. In other words, the fact that you guys are not around this shit all the time, and I mean ALL THE TIME. I think the difficulty is that we are so unaccustomed, we live basically in the emperor’s new clothes, where we’re undergoing this oppression, but we all sit around and say, “No, we’re not.” And then what really excruciates us, what shocks the shit out of us is when somebody makes the mistake of pointing out that the emperor has not clothes. Or when somebody makes the mistake of saying, “Hey, this is what’s happening to us.” We’ve gotten super twisted as a society. It's really fascinating. If you think about the 60’s, you didn’t surprise or shock anybody in America, white, black, brown, yellow to say that there was racism in America. White people would have been like, “Yes, there is racism and we want more.” You know? Now, if you say that there’s racism in this country, every single person will try to silence you. Everybody will be like, “No, that’s not true.”

I can’t speak for your friend, I’m sure she just thinks I suck at it and that I’m not just simply representing, that I’m approving of this stuff. I would disagree. I think that people confuse representation with approbation. How can you even be in the conversation if you avoid it? What I’m specifically saying is that, we’ve gotten into a very weird place in our culture where I think most of us are deeply avoidant of the kind of conversation that would be required to, in many ways, alter or improve our situation. Because to alter and improve our situation literally means looking into the abyss.

The hardest thing to do is to live our oppression. It’s not to encounter it in art. It says a lot about how much pain we must be undergoing, that to encounter oppression in art is unbearable.But I know that fear, I know that agony. I think that we’re in a space where there are not many spaces of deliberation; We’re not accustomed to them. We didn’t grow up with these expressions and certainly the culture has done everything possible to bend us away from them.

It’s almost like the classic, you have to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, in reading the stories in “This is How You Lose Her.” This is a representation of something that’s real. This isn’t made up, but that’s not necessarily saying that it’s right.

I think it’s no accident that the people who do the best job of reminding us of our oppression are artists. And that the one area of our education that has been most systematically gutted in this country is arts education. It’s no accident that people confuse representation with approbation. It’s almost like a natural leap for most people. They’re like, “Oh, he says the word ‘n****r’ must mean he completely agrees with it.” I think that there’s a deep connection. There’s something about art that really engages us in questioning our social lives.People’s lack of arts education has taken out a lot of our teeth.

In terms of activism, how do you balance those two? How does your activism feed into your art or are those two things separate?

I look at people like Maxine Hong Kingston. She’s been a long, long-time peace activist and she’s one of the most important writers. I look at Sandra Cisneros. Sandra Cisneros has been a very active member of the Chicana feminist community and she’s been able to do it. It’s the same question as “Can a woman work and have a family?” For me, we’re always being told that these things are mutually exclusive, that you’ve got to choose one or the other. But you know, I’m always being asked to choose between categories where I would never choose one or the other. I would always choose both. Arts and activism for me is a natural. Being of African descent, being from the Caribbean and being Latino. Anytime I’m asked to choose one, I look at the person and say, “I totally fucking reject your request.”

It’s like an inability to understand, at least in the United States, the ability to exist in-between.

Yeah and simultaneous. Often in-between, there’s something skulking a lot of times when I hear the term in-between. I think there’s always this either/or but for me it’s like, how about both?

Final question: Will Yunior ever find decolonial love?

I think the book asks the reader at the end. I think the book makes some very strong claims about his journey, about what he learned. I guess you read the book, and by the end it asks, do you think he’s changed enough where that’s possible? It would be too simple to show Yunior at the end meeting someone on a park bench and going, “Wow, here’s the future.” Instead, I leave Yunior at the cusp of transformation and I ask the reader, “Well, is he a different person than the person who opens the book saying, “I’m not a bad guy?” The book doesn’t end with Yunior saying “I’m not a bad guy.” It’s up to the reader to write that final chapter.

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